The Coming School Choice Moment?

In my Introduction to Political Philosophy class semester, I gave an essay final examination in which students had the option to answer this question: “Using one of the moral or political philosophies we have studied, defend a moral position on one of the following contemporary political issues: school vouchers, immigration restrictions, interrogational torture, or affirmative action.” As it turns out, 12 students chose to write an essay on school vouchers. All 12 of them came out in support of school vouchers. I thought this was striking, as even interrogational torture did not achieve perfect unanimity in students’ views of the topic.

Are we witnessing a generational shift in opinion on school choice, much as we have seen on same-sex marriage and to a lesser extent marijuana legalization? Much has been made of Millennials as a “progressive” or even “statist generation.” Certainly, today’s under-30’s are far more likely to identify as Democrats, to support “socialism” and oppose “capitalism,” and to come out in favor of government activism on a wide range of issues than any other age group, even those just a couple of years older. (My pet theory is that this has something to do with their coming of age after the fall of Communism.) However, on same-sex partnerships and marijuana policy, under-30’s are relatively libertarian, and school choice may be another such issue. After all, like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, school choice is an issue that may have been debated by academics decades ago but only entered the policy conversation in the 1990’s. As Millennials age and start voting more, while today’s elderly die and leave the electorate, we should expect the political spectrum to shift somewhat toward their views, assuming that these opinion trends are true birth cohort effects and not life cycle effects.

So what do the data say about school vouchers? The Foundation for Educational Choice has done a number of state surveys of public opinion on education, including various reform options (Virginia, Nebraska, etc.). I looked at the cross-tabs of these surveys to see whether young people are indeed more likely to support vouchers and tax credits. It turns out that opinion on vouchers and tax credits correlates reasonably well with assessment of the public school system in one’s own area. For instance, in the Virginia survey it was asked which type of school you would send your own kids to: public, private, charter, or home? 18- to 25-year-olds were by far the most anti-public-school demographic, with just 31% saying public school and 48% private school. The most pro-home-school group was ages 26-35. The most pro-voucher age group was ages 36-45, followed by 18-25, 46-55, and 26-35, all with support above 55%. Among racial/ethnic categories, just 27% of Hispanics supported public schools for their kids (but N=26, so take with a grain of salt – but other state surveys show a similar percentage). Hispanics are also overwhelmingly pro-voucher, with 73% supporting and 19% opposing them. Blacks and whites show similar views of vouchers and public schools in this and other Foundation for Educational Choice surveys, but a Commonwealth Foundation poll in Pennsylvania, where a black gubernatorial candidate made school vouchers a central campaign issue, showed a 69-8% favorability margin among black respondents. In general, parents of K-12 students are also more favorable to vouchers than are other respondents, and the elderly are least likely to support vouchers. Catholics are the most pro-voucher religious group in most states, while the nonreligious are the least supportive. Surprisingly, the partisan gap on vouchers and tax credits is pretty small, although the gap between self-identified conservatives and liberals is much larger.

Some of these results indicate a strong self-interest component to views on vouchers. Those who expect to benefit from school choice (parents, especially religious ones, and those with a very recent experience of the K-12 school system) support it, while those who don’t care much about school system quality (the elderly, the childless) oppose it. Perhaps the public assumes that vouchers would actually increase overall school spending, and for that reason those who pay property taxes but don’t benefit from school spending oppose vouchers.

The question is whether today’s recent high school graduates will carry their school experiences with them and continue to support educational alternatives to the public school monopolies. Or as they age, will they forget their experiences and gradually come to support the status quo in greater numbers? The only way to answer this question will be to analyze the evolution of opinion over the next decade or so. If by 2020, the 26-40 age group still registers very high support for vouchers, then we are dealing with a birth cohort effect, and by that point the political scales might have already tipped in favor of the policy. A firmer reason to think that school vouchers are about to have their political moment is the fact that Hispanics are so overwhelmingly in favor. One point of consensus among demographers is that Hispanics will continue to grow as a percentage of the electorate. A few years from now, elected officials will likely be facing a more pro-school-choice electorate.

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